Local ski areas are beginning to see the implications of a drought year as Arapahoe Basin focuses on conservation in snowmaking efforts.
"Stream levels are low - we wish we were making more snow, but we're still making it work," said Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of the ski area. "We probably won't get to make snow on every single place that we want to, but we're still going to try."
A-Basin snowmaking operations divert water from the North Fork of the Snake River into a local reservoir, but low stream levels require more moderation in the outflow.
The ski area diverts small amounts of water from the reservoir around the clock for snowmaking operations. Snowmaking crews blow snow 10 hours per day. Snowmaking operations are permitted by water rights, but the ski area is required to maintain a minimum bypass flow to ensure stream health.
Henceroth said A-Basin would be making more snow if stream flows permitted, but the ski area is in good shape for the winter season.
"We were still the first ski area in the state to open and we're working on adding more terrain," Henceroth said. "We're working around the low levels and we're still making it work."
To conserve water in-flows from the North Fork of the Snake, A-Basin's snowmaking operations are compensating by having more efficient sessions.
"Having the reservoir works well for us because the stream is not a particularly huge river. We divert a little amount of water at a time and we have really good, but shorter sessions of snowmaking," Henceroth said.
Ski area officials reported Thursday more terrain would be open today.
"Arapahoe Basin plans to open new terrain Nov. 17 allowing guests to ski from the summit to the base area. Thanks to recent natural snowfall and low temperatures conducive to snowmaking, A-Basin will open two more intermediate runs: Lenawee Face and Dercum's Gulch," ski area officials stated in a press release.
The top-to-bottom trails connect at mid-mountain with High Noon and Ramrod. The runs are serviced by the Black Mountain Express and Lenawee Mountain lifts.
The slow start to this winter season has put Summit County far below normal in precipitation and snowpack levels typical of mid-November.
Local measurements show stream flow in the lowest 10 percent and well below normal, said Jeff Lukas, senior research associate with the Western Water Assessment, a University of Colorado program. "We may be in a new water year but we're still suffering from the hangover of the 2012 water year."
Data collected by Western Water Assessment show local rivers, especially the Snake and Blue rivers with stream flows well below average, likely to be connected to the drought conditions extending from last winter, according to Lukas.
Not all hope is lost though, with much of the winter remaining and any trajectory a possibility.
"We don't know what is going to happen," Lukas said. "At this point, I wouldn't be surprised to see a huge storm."
Though diverting water for snowmaking operations from the Snake River, similar to Arapahoe Basin, Keystone Resort officials say the ski area is not being affecting by the drought.
Copper Mountain takes water from Tenmile and West Tenmile creeks for its snowmaking operations.
"Copper Mountain has two direct in-line flow reliable water sources, one reservoir and one creek," said Mike Loony, slope maintenance manager for the ski area. "At this time Copper Mountain is not experiencing any drought-caused effects on snowmaking operations."
Breckenridge Ski Resort diverts water from the Blue River and ski area officials say, despite drought conditions, snowmaking operations will continue to commence as normal.
On behalf of Vail Resorts, Kristen Pettit-Stewart, spokeswoman for Breckenridge Ski Resort stated in an email Friday:
"Our company has put significant effort and multiple resources into our water rights over the years, both through the Clinton agreement and partnerships with the town and county. We are fortunate to have access to plentiful water to ensure snowmaking across our resort, as we saw last winter."
The Blue River, Tenmile Creek, West Tenmile Creek and the Snake River all reflect streamflows much below normal, according to the USGS Water Watch by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The typical snowmaking season is mid- to late September through Christmas or New Year's Day.
To reach stream levels and snowpack of a typical year, western Colorado would not need much more than average precipitation for the remainder of the winter to reach normal conditions, Lukas said.